Tuesday, September 19, 2006

It's the end of fiction as we know it (and I feel fine)!

“I wonder if the fiction market isn't in decline,” I said. “In fact, I wonder if the internet hasn't altered our taste for fiction to the point where we don't much care for it anymore. We read what we read on the internet, 99.9% of which is non-fiction — blogs, editorials, grand theories regarding entertainment, politics, religion, society. We entertain these theories during our daylight hours, and if they're provocative enough we approach the bookstore and buy something that either proves or disproves what we've been thinking about. Every day we willingly expose ourselves to a deluge of 'information'; a deluge unlike anything any previous generation ever had to process. Now we're text-messaging, e-mailing, downloading our music to provide us with a 24-hour soundtrack. We don't 'use' the novel to make sense of contemporary experience, the way we used to. 'Theory' appears to be more immediate and more dynamic than narrative. It also appears to offer limits. Fiction writers typically hate limits, but society craves them, so we turn to non-fiction. We are becoming a post-fiction society.”

This is the sort of thing you can expect me to say after I've enjoyed a dram or two of whisky. At the moment, however, I was sipping nothing more intoxicating than Corr's Black Cherry Soda. Mind you, this was at the Centre Street Deli, where I was also eating a plate of delicious smoked meat and savouring an enormous gherkin pickle. Rapturous food can inspire rapturous opinions; normally I'd blame the pickle, but that meat was succulent stuff.

Today, in the sober morning light, I sought confirmation in the bestseller lists. Having contributed to the Globe & Mail's statistics pool in years past, I deliberately avoided them along with other newspaper and magazine lists. The word “blindsided” was coined for just such institutions and their blinkered lists — the enquring reader is better off consulting the horoscopes page for an accurate take on what people are reading. Instead I went directly to Amazon.ca to see what their bestsellers were.

As of 10:15 a.m. (Central), the number one bestseller is Freakonomics, followed by the memoirs of our former Governor General, Adrian Clarkson. So far, so good. Then we have Spellbound by Nora Roberts and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood — fiction, both. Number Five is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth — non-fiction again (hooray!). The next five are Reading Like A Writer (literary non-fiction), You: The Owner's Manual (self-help), Inside My Heart (memoir, self-help), Wayne Johnston's The Custodian of Paradise (fiction) and How To Win Friends And Influence People (I can hardly believe my eyes, but there you go: self-help again). Eight of the next fifteen entries are fiction, so IF this brief glimpse is in any way indicative fiction is still a healthy, selling genre—but in the minority. Of the top 25 titles, 11 are fiction (I include Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which exists in a dodgy category all its own — New Age self-help, dressed up as a cheerful novel).

If I look at my yearly list of books read, non-fiction is indeed gaining traction, but I'm still chiefly drawn to fiction. However, here is how my taste in novels has shifted: I used to seek out the “hip” first, then the literary, followed by genre fiction. These days genre comes first, literary second, and hip last. I am drawn, first and foremost, to stories involving easily identifiable characters struggling toward an easily identifiable conclusion. I am suspicious of “hip”, and judging from my nephews and nieces, so is the younger generation. Have today's Twenty-Somethings latched on to a novel the way I and my peers did to Coupland's Generation X, back in the day? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I very much doubt it. And as for the literary novel, my impulse is to read historical literary fiction before I pick up something that aspires to being contemporary. Again, if this list is any indication I am not alone.

“You just might have something there,” said my friend. She'd started the conversation by confessing her own waning interest in fiction. “Why don't you put it up on your blog and see what other people think.”

Alright then: what do you think?


DarkoV said...

Apropos of nothing at all. This deli. Located in Thornhill, Ontario. Is it the same Thornhill as Moxy Fruvous' Thornhill?

o.k., continue.

DarkoV said...

I wouldn't put too much stock in my reading habits; don't think they're a worthy statistical lot.
All are rough estimates
Non-Fiction 40%
History-related 60%
Science-related 40%

Fiction 55%
Novels 70%
Short stories 30%

Science Fiction 5%

I note the latter simply because the 5% used to be 30-40% of my reading a long time ago. I guess as I'm clocking the years, the optimisic/fatalistic ideas that sci-fi brought to me are getting less interesting; their possible occurence are beyond my scope of living.

And new stuff, particularly fiction, is less tempting. My backlog of unread novels published in the last 100 years is too great to tarry around the newbies. Except, of course, novels by favorite writers of favorite novels already read.

This entry of yours isn't a harbinger of some news regarding your soon-to-be-available tome, is it?

Whisky Prajer said...

This Thornhill is indeed the locale that inspired the group. Entirely suburban in character, but again: that smoked meat was delicious enough to give Old Montreal a run for its money.

I should add that this theory of mine does nothing to dampen my own fiction-writing output. These musings are pretty common, and unless a fiction writer is hoping to make a comfortable living at the trade, they shouldn't be at all discouraging.

You say 40% is non-fiction: has that percentage increased or held steady over the years?

Cowtown Pattie said...

Hmmm, I hate math questions.

But, in order to be an accomodating reader/commentor, I would judge my average genre percentage as thus ( and blogs are not averaged in):

Fiction -68% or better

Non-fiction ( mostly nature writers as of late) 32% or less

What have I read this year so far?

My memory is as sharp as my math (like a forgotten campfire marshmellow left out in the elements and early morning dew) and my bedside reading pile rivals the peaks of Kilimanjaro, but here goes the short list containing some of the stuff I have read recently:

1. Telegraph Days - Larry McMurtry
2. Bone Game - Louis Owens
3. Red -Passion and Patience in the Desert - Terry Tempest Williams
4. The Last Cheater's Waltz - Ellen Melloy
5. Falling from Grace in Texas: A Literary Response to the Demise of Paradise - Rick Bass
6. The Historian - Elizabeth Kostovo
7. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd-by Richard Zacks
8. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper -Phillip Sugden
9. The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy
10. Bluefeather Fellini -Max Evans
11. The Widow of the South - Robert Hicks
12. Time and Again - Jack Finney
13. The First Eagle - Tony Hillerman
14. Second Coffee Creek - Alan Kimball
15. The Novels of Dashiell Hammett - A compilation
15. Desert Solitaire - Edward Abbey
16. Twelve Blackfoot Stories - Mary Schriver

Looking back on my list, I discover I have weird reading tastes...and now the world knows.

Whisky Prajer said...

Funny, but you have a couple of titles that can be found in my bedside pile, too. Hammett and McCarthy are there currently, but I've also had Hillerman, McMurtry and Finney threaten to topple over and wake me up (Prairie Mary's inclusion is a good reminder: been meaning to pick that one up).

Still, your representation differs quite dramatically from Amazon.com (US), whose top 25 sellers include only nine(!) fiction titles. Amazon used to have a "regional" feature, where the curious could see what sold well in, say, Texas - but I can't seem to find it. It could be Texans have a greater appetite for fiction. If that were so, I wouldn't be at all surprised - Texans being indeed a breed apart.

DarkoV said...

I'd say the 40% has been relatively constant, although the split of History annd Science has always been in flux. I'm throwing into the non-fiction chasm such beauties as this, this, this, this and this.

Non-fiction category is the Pacific to fiction's Mediterranean, so 40% actually seems very low to me. Included in non-fiction would be travel-related books as well, which I'm a soft touch for especially those written by Tim Cahill and Eric Hansen.

Scott said...

The new Generation X? Easy.

Bridget Jones' Diary spoke to a generation!

A stupid generation!

All kidding aside, yikes, this one nicked me a bit, Darrell, as virtually everything I read these days is non-fiction -- philistine, c'est moi!

I have, though, finally cracked open my copy of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh -- I've read his books in reverse order, it seems -- and I'm rediscovering the way a novel can both pull you out of your own world and into the author's, while pushing you deeper into your own memories and feelings.

Sure, a great movie can do that too but not as well and for not as long. Maybe I'll finally get into Cormac McCarthy next...

the patriarch said...

I taught high school English for a few years, 2000 - 2003, and the boys were devouring Fight Club, passing it around, talking about it, etc. It was refreshing. And these weren't just the bookish boys, but also the jocks and the musicians and most everybody.

The girls all seemed to be reading Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. I noticed that the kids in general read more than my peers did in high school (82-86). Or rather, a greater spectrum of kids were reading for pleasure, and were fully engaged with some of the books.

Although my time as a teacher wasn't that long ago, it was pre-blog age, at least for most people. I'm sure things have changed already.

Whisky Prajer said...

If my nephews (17, 19) are any indication, Fight Club is *still* big. The book obviously speaks to young lads. I love the book (it remains Pahlaniuk's best, I think), but it pays to open discussion when you see kids of a certain age picking it up!